Daily Archives: 10/03/2011

Was #CongressHostage a #Fail For The Onion?

On Thursday of last week, @TheOnion (the official Twitter account of satirical American news agency The Onion) sent out this tweet:

Pretty alarming, right? They followed it up with this, about 10 minutes later:

So by this point hopefully most people were able to figure out it was satire (or a hoax, depending on your perspective). If you’ve never heard of The Onion before, they’re a satirical news organization and a quick scan around their website (or the other tweets in their Twitter feed) would reveal that in a hurry (mostly because real news organizations don’t tend to curse quite that frequently).

The problem raised was whether or not they went too far, especially with that first tweet. It’s very easy for content to be buried on Twitter if you don’t go looking for it. If all you saw was that first tweet, you might have missed that it was satire (and if you look at the following tweets, they have proper spelling and the content is presented well – part of why people often don’t realize right away The Onion is not a real news site). And there’s always that hesitation where you wonder if an organization like The Onion, even if it is a satirical news site, has a duty to report real, major news like a hostage taking or major attack. Whether or not they were serious about the story, it created enough buzz that police in Washington will be investigating.

Regardless of how ridiculous the story was, and how quickly it became apparent it was a hoax, it did make waves across Twitter and around the net. @TheOnion has a pretty high Klout score and some suggest they gained quite a few followers during the whole debacle. There’s even an entire blog devoted to people caught taking reports by The Onion seriously. And many first (or at the very least second) reactions upon seeing the tweets were “Did they get hacked?”, which, thanks to similar, recent incidents at Fox News and NBC, is a common reaction (but a good one).

The Onion has responded to the criticism, saying “This is satire, this is how it works.”. It’s not the first time they’ve found themselves in hot water over satire that some view as going too far (note the date). Adding fuel to the fire this time was a man arrested the day before over a plot to attack the US Capitol Hill and Pentagon. Regardless of their intentions, it’s important to remember a few things when you pull open Twitter and see an alarming tweet or trending topic, or if you visit a major news site and see a breaking news article.

Question the Source

…and especially in this day and age, look very closely at whether or not it’s a legitimate article or is the result of a hacker attack.

Verify it Elsewhere

“Hmm. The Onion has a story about shots being fired on Capitol Hill. Does Fox have it? MSNBC? CNN? NBC? PBS?”.

Avoid Wild Speculation

If all you had to go on was that first tweet, you might have thought something very serious was happening. Those who waited for more details realized it was a hoax. 140 characters does not a story make.

And now I’m hoping to hear from you. Did you hear about the #CongressHostage story as it was breaking? Did The Onion cross the line? Or did those who fall for it have only themselves to blame? Let us know in the comments.


For more on ways to protect yourself from being tricked online, read my previous blog post “You Can’t Trust Everything You Read On Twitter (Or Online in General)”.


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